In the pre-dawn chill, the very air was tense with expectation. There seemed to be a lull in the endless barrage of heavy-weapons fire, and the sector two leaders feared that the enemy had somehow got wind of their plans, until it was pointed out that firing always slackened off at this hour.
All ears strained for the sound of helicopters. The wind was coming off the sea, and the crashing of the waves could be heard, as well as the raucous cry of an insomniac gull.
Charlie peered through a window frame at the cobalt sky above, breathing in the salty freshness of the air one last time. Then he turned and took Mina in his arms, as he had done repeatedly through the night, and kissed her, lifting her off her feet as he did so, desperate to cram into these last moments all the ardour he could muster.
At the next window, Larry stood, his head cocked on one side. He raised a forefinger. A distant chattering became perceptible above the clamour of wind and waves, growing rapidly louder.
“This is it,” he breathed.
Face masks were drawn into position, communicator linkages plugged in. Larry’s forefinger rose to the place on his mask in front of his lips.
As the choppers swept over in line abreast, their gun turrets already turning to seek the heat of enemy weapons, the sky erupted, painted over with ersatz daylight as the Security guns around the bridge brought their monstrous anger to bear.
As the ground-to-air battle was joined, the sector two forces and Crispin’s Army moved into the streets, dividing into three groups as per their briefing. Kirsty, Crispin and Josie led one party towards the water, Charlie and Mina led the second directly away from the apartment building in a line parallel with the bay, while Larry, Tana and Cath moved away with the sea breeze on their backs, leading their force into the city streets.
Crouching low, using every abandoned car, the blasted remains of a downed chopper, the scattered remnants of bombarded buildings, Kirsty’s force turned their faces into the wind and proceeded down the street towards the broad sweep of the bay.
Crispin kept close behind the leader, watching how her bunched hair bobbed like a tethered balloon over her shoulders. Not far away to their left, the sounds of mayhem could be heard, and the fighters struggled to put the possible suffering of their comrades out of their minds and to concentrate on their own immediate danger and the urgency of the job in hand.
They crept across every intersection, with groups of three or four of their number located at each corner, ready to let fly if the enemy should open up. But only the occasional stray shot came hissing up the side streets.
In a short time they came to the waterside. A broad promenade followed the curve of the bay, at the further side of which was a stone wall, now gap-toothed where segments had been blown away in past fighting, and what remained was heavily pocked on both the landward and the seaward side by countless exchanges of small arms fire. Interspersed along the wall, there were also openings where piers stretched out into the bay, formerly for the benefit of pleasure craft and various commercial transports that carried heavy goods across the water to other parts of the city. A number of these were still visible, their burnt-out deckhouses rising above the water where they had been sunk at their moorings. There was not one that remained afloat.
To their left, the piers ceased, leaving an uninterrupted arc of promenade as far as the bridge, half a kilometre away. The promenade road passed under the bridge access, while a ramp linking the two curved upward through the angle between them. Rising through the triangular space thus created was a heavily armoured guard post standing on beams threaded into the support structure of the bridge and the access ramp. The same arrangement was repeated on the further side of the bridge.
Each guard tower had an observation level, where guards kept a ceaseless watch from behind blaster-proof glass, and from where they could operate powerful searchlights and heavy laser cannons mounted on the roof above them. Below, a ladder dropped to a floating platform where a fast launch was tied up.
Kirsty pressed her back against the wall at the corner of the street and peered, letting scarcely more than her nose protrude. She withdrew slightly.
“Take a look,” she said to Crispin. “But be careful. Their infra-red will pick up on almost any exposed flesh.”
Crispin imitated her actions.
“See it?” she asked. “That’s what we’re after.”
He drew back from the corner. “So how do we approach?”
“That,” Kirsty sighed, “is what bothers me. Obviously we can’t simply make a frontal assault. Maybe if we could draw their fire from two different angles, someone could sneak up close. Their weakest point is the support structure underneath the tower. If we could get in close enough to pump some real heavy fire at that, it might give way. But that cannon on the roof is a mean mother. And there’s another one on the other side of the bridge. We would have to keep them so busy...” She drifted into thought for a while. “All right,” she said at last. “Let’s do it. Before it gets light. Crispin, Josie, you, you and you. Follow me out onto that end pier. The rest of you, give covering fire. Lacey, you’re in charge at this end. Stand by to receive my orders. Okay, good luck, all of you. Let’s go.”
And she ran, head down, sprinting across the open space of the promenade, achieving surprising speed. The expected fire from the cannon on the bridge did not come. Instead, snipers based in Security held buildings along the seafront opened up with lighter, more accurate zappers, and Kirsty had to zig and zag crazily to avoid being hit.
She made it across the mournful plain and finally reached shelter behind a plinth on the seaward side, the base of a monument - long since destroyed - to some local benefactor.
Crispin pulled a powerful scope from his breast pocket. He zoomed in first on Kirsty, who was giving hand signals to indicate that she was unhurt, and then on the guard tower, where he saw the first indication that the cannon was being wheeled into action, doubtless to shatter the plinth, leaving Kirsty exposed.
“Kirsty, run!” he yelled into his communicator.
Kirsty began haring along by the sea wall, gunfire sparking all around her. Suddenly she screamed, stumbled, and plunged through a gap in the wall. There was a splash as she hit the sea below, then the firing stopped, and all was still.
“We’ve got to finish what she started,” said Crispin decisively, not wishing to dwell on the possibility that Kirsty might be dead. “But that means dealing with the snipers. I want a force of two hundred along this side of the street, and into the buildings where they’re holed up. Get rid of them. Josie and you others, follow me.” He looked Josie in the eye. “But be careful.”
He squeezed her hand tightly for a moment, biting his lip. Then he released it and ran, not obliquely as Kirsty had done, but directly across the promenade. The cannon wheeled to track him and fired.
There was a heavy, thudding explosion, and a thick cloud of smoke puffed where the shot had landed in the middle of the road. The sound of it masked the splash as Crispin vaulted over the sea wall and leapt into the briny.
“Quick!” Josie commanded. “Before the smoke clears, you three, follow me into the crater.”
And she dashed from cover and sprang into the hole in the middle of the promenade, followed by three men.
“Good,” she panted into her communicator, peering nervously over the rim of the crater. “Move out, people. Let’s see those creeps show their hand.”
The Underground fighters moved round the corner onto the promenade, trotting, wary, trigger fingers twitching. And they came under fire. Laser bolts zipped from four different buildings along the curve of the promenade.
“Fall back!” Josie commanded, as shrieking men and women were mown down. “Take cover.”
There was an awkward, stumbling retreat, as the fighters pulled back around the corner, or else dived into sheltering doorways.
Josie put her scope to her eye, in time to see the cannon on the guard tower turn.
“Back from the corner!” she warned. “They’re taking out that building!”
The warning came too late, as heavy fire slammed again and again into the corner building, shattering it, bringing down crumbling walls on top of those immediately below.
A helicopter appeared out of nowhere, skimming low over the water, weaving to left and right, drawing the cannon fire. Great plumes of spray fountained up as the guards in the tower sought to down the speeding chopper. The cannon on the further side of the bridge was also brought into play, but succeeded only in knocking a large chunk out of the near side of the bridge. The chopper appeared to be on a collision course with the bridge, dipped as if making to pass beneath it, then at the last moment rose sharply, banking and twisting, and looped away into the sky, the cannons following it, blazing their wrath.
Josie made one observation about the operating of the guns which she filed away for future reference.
“Do you have the sniper positions, people?” she called into her communicator.
“Loud and proud, Josie,” came the reply. “Big white building four blocks down. The grey one next to it. The burnt out shell in the next block, and the real big one in the block after that.”
“Go get ’em,” Josie said simply.
A small but significant detachment emerged from behind the rubble of the demolished corner building, drawing anew the sniper fire, while the main force slipped through back streets running parallel to the promenade, to storm those buildings and kill the snipers.
Josie turned to the three men beside her. “Heading for the pier on the end. Let’s go.”
She sprang from the crater and raced for the sea wall. Sniper fire buzzed around her feet, and then she heard the cannon strike behind her. There was a gargled scream.
Mounting the wall, she glanced back. Two men were close behind her. The upper body of the third lay face up at the edge of a fresh crater. Then there was a blinding flash, and she was blown from the wall into the sea.
She was blinded, and under the waves. She kicked frantically upward, groping up with flailing arms for what seemed an eternity before she felt water give way to air, and she wrenched off her mask to drain it, and breathed in deeply. Through the communicator she could hear shouts, commands, anguished cries, as battle raged full blooded. She could hear the exchange of fire herself.
“Is anyone there?” she called, hoping the other men had made it over the wall. With no other visual input, her mind’s eye replayed to her the image of the severed torso pouring forth a river of blood. There was no reply.
A wave picked her up and slammed her against something, jarring her back and her head. She put her hand to the crown of her head, and the hand came away sticky. She reached out her other hand and felt the asperity of sea-worn concrete.
She put her mask on again and spoke into the communicator. “This is Josie. I’m in the water. I can’t see. Someone help me. Please.”
She felt dizzy, and struggled to maintain her orientation. She turned to her left, just as another wave came, pushing her sideways against the concrete. She struck out, trying to put a little distance between the wall and her frail body, and began to swim, sightless and with no sense of distance.
In a few minutes her outstretched hand touched something cold and hard, while strange, tentative feelers caressed her body and legs below the water. In another moment she had been pushed into a reluctant embrace with whatever it was that was cold and hard, and she found she could just encircle it with her arms. She felt barnacle-studded metal against her cheek, and a tactile investigation of the feelers showed them to be smooth and leathery. She concluded that she was clinging to the kelp-fringed support of one of the piers. She clung, powerless against the will of the current, fervently wishing to die.